Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The SNAP Challenge, Part 1

I've discussed hunger in this blog before. I've told stories of hungry folks I meet on the street through the Outdoor Church of Cambridge. And there was that one failed attempt at fasting in solidarity with the poor. Now, another opportunity has arisen to be in solidarity with those who rely on public assistance for food (but without the dehydration headache). Last week, Christian Piatt over at the Sojourners blog issued the SNAP Challenge: to live for one week, Aug. 20-26, as if one depends on food stamps. Of course, I decided to join in, and I'm learning some interesting things. In case you want to do it, here's how it works:
“SNAP” stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” which is the new name for food stamps. Basically, families receive $4 a day per family member to cover food costs, so the SNAP challenge is pretty simple (in theory, at least): Live on the same amount with your family for a week.
For a family of four like us, this means we’ll have $112 to spend on all groceries for the week. If you’re single, you’re stuck with living on $28. Couples get $56, and so on. And there are a few ground rules:
  • You can’t raid your existing food in the fridge or cupboard without counting that toward your weekly total. Condiments and spices are an exception, though use them sparingly to be fair.
  • If you go out to eat, the whole ticket amount counts, including tax and tip.
  • If someone brings you a meal or buys you a meal, you have to count the full cost of it as if you had bought it yourself.
Some of the folks in the comments section have suggested some other requirements: you have to look for sales and use coupons, you have to go to the grocery store with a list, and keep in mind that most people on food stamps are working, and therefore have a little bit more to spend on food that the stamps by themselves.  One person wrote, "The SNAP challenge is not too far from daily reality for many. Please don't assume that poor people and people living near poverty by choice or circumstances aren't reading your articles."

Her point really hit home for me this week as I dove into the challenge. Since I already use coupons and sales, and I already use lists and a bottom-line tracker when in the grocery store, I thought it would be, well, a snap! Only three full days in, though, I have learned a few things:

1. Prices are really high here in Boston, MA, and that is very true for food. I spent $54.67 in one trip to the grocery store on Tuesday, most of this week's theoretical EBT card. Granted, I bought a lot of produce and meats. It's possible that many who are poorer than I would spend a lot less on produce here in the city. That may be different in Ashland, where produce and meat are both cheaper because they don't have to travel as far from the farm to the fridge. I don't think I have ever missed Gerwig's White Barn so much in my life.

2. I decided to check online and see what it would take for our family (my husband and me) to qualify for SNAP in the state of Massachusetts. Turns out... we do! We both work full-time and we still qualify for SNAP, mainly due to how much we spend on rent. It appears that the evaluation is based on how much money we have to our name, and we don't have much because our rent and educational bills eat it all up. We wouldn't qualify if we lived on this much in Ashland. Interesting: I myself am now a classic example of those who qualify for government assistance and do not use it.

3. Even when you're "grown-up" and you have a "real job," ramen noodles are still a cheap and legitimate meal when paired with protein and a fruit or veggie... if you're willing to consume more than half your day's sodium in one sitting.

4. The SNAP Challenge doesn't work out well for those with food allergies/ restrictions. I downloaded the Food Stamp Challenge Recipes PDF found here, which are nutritionist-approved. I found that most of the recipes were vegetarian, relied on legumes like beans and nuts, and often used cheap meats like canned tuna or turkey instead of chicken breast.  Since my spouse is allergic to all legumes and fish, a good 75% of the recipes were a no-go. I tried one of them already, a vegetarian one, and while it is delicious, it didn't fill me up for very long. Those with allergies, restrictions like Crohn's Disease or Celiac, or those who are anemic can't eat the cheapest foods... and those who can may be hungry or turn to junk food when between-meal cravings inevitably strike.

5. I already live the SNAP Challenge every week, for the most part. We spend an average of $65-68 on groceries per week. That's not too far away from the $56 allotted in my theoretical EBT card. And like the comments said, this is supplemental assistance, meant to help those who already have some other type of income. But my life is very different from some others who use SNAP, who have to go to food pantries, like this mom working for minimum wage. Not only do we not go to food pantries, but we probably eat out more than most folks on SNAP.

So what does all this mean for my life as a Christian? Well, so far I have realized that I should not be so hard on myself over my food budget. Reading the comments has made me realize for the first time that those who can afford it are much more haphazard with their choices in the grocery store! Some people aren't kidding when they say they don't pay attention to how much they spend on food. By contrast, I'm constantly keeping track of how much I spend on food, which food, and when. Since I already live the SNAP Challenge, and although I qualify for SNAP I don't use it, I realized that the face of near-poverty is... me. Wild.

I have also realized that socioeconomic privilege is a complex and many-layered thing. Last weekend, I went out to do the sandwich ministry with the Outdoor Church of Cambridge again. We took ~40 sandwiches, as usual, and there was so much demand, we ran out within 10 minutes! I strategized with Pastor Jed regarding how to get more sandwiches to hungry people on weekends. Looking back on only the first few days of the SNAP Challenge, I recognize that I am the working almost-poor who takes time out of her schedule to feed the destitute. That means a few things: 1. circumstances can always be worse; 2. even those who think they have next to nothing can still give to those who have even less; 3. God cares for us, whether or not we are educated or resourceful (or in the case of my neighbors on the street, sober) enough to obtain public assistance. Certainly my homeless neighbors qualify: they make about $600/ month on the street, but they have no address at which to receive SNAP and no kitchen in which to prepare food. Still, God cares for them, through me and through everyone else at the Outdoor Church, the local shelters, and area soup kitchens.

It's only halfway through the week! Stay tuned for the conclusion of the SNAP Challenge Cambridge-style. If you're interested in trying it, follow the links I provided above and jump in!

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